The Country Club Dispute

On March 7, 2013 · 3 Comments

The Country Club Dispute has been mentioned a couple of times in reader comments over the years. It’s one of those situations I’ve known about for awhile, placed in my pile of unused topics, and finally summoned enough motivation to write about today. It sounds like two snobby gentlemen with upturned noses and green blazers whacking each other with 5 irons after learning they’re dating the same debutante. That’s what comes to mind every time I spot a passing reference to the Country Club Dispute, and it never fails to bring a little chuckle to my lips, even though I’m fully of the disconnect between reality and stereotype here.

It’s the reason why Texas and New Mexico have such a seemingly haphazard border northwest of El Paso. It also accounts for the only part of Texas on the "wrong" side of the Rio Grande River.

View Country Club Dispute in a larger map
Look at me! Wrong-side Texas!

I’ve discussed the formation of Texas so many times (for example) that I can’t stand to do it again. Let’s just say that Texas split from México, became an independent nation, then joined the United States. Later the U.S. purchased a slice of México that includes southern areas of modern Arizona and New Mexico, called the Gadsden Purchase (map). Are you with me? The Country Club Dispute revolved around the tiny 15-mile portion of border added between New Mexico (then a Territory) and Texas as a result of the purchase.

New Mexico became a state in 1912 and brought suit against Texas in 1913, disputing the border. The case went directly to the Supreme Court because it has original jurisdiction for interstate disputes as provided in Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. The Court appointed a "special master" who investigated the situation and filed a report. Ultimately this led to the Supreme Court case New Mexico v. Texas (1927).

I’ll let Justice Sanford explain.

Each State thus asserted that the true boundary line is the middle of the channel of the Rio Grande in 1850. Neither alleged that there had been any change in this line by accretions. And the only issue was as to the true location of the channel in that year… That is, broadly speaking, New Mexico contends that the river then ran on the eastern side of the valley, and Texas, that it ran mainly on the western side. The distance between the two locations midway of the disputed area is about four miles.

It’s quite visible on a terrain map.

View Larger Map

Notice the Franklin Mountains to the east and a slight rise in the terrain to the west. The Rio Grande has a history of sloshing between those two natural barriers which, as Justice Sanford noted, are about four miles apart. Both sides agreed that the border should follow the path of the Rio Grande as it existed in 1850. That wasn’t in dispute. The precise location of the river in 1850 was in fact the dispute.

New Mexico relied upon less precise witness evidence. The Court used what would now be considered unfortunate terminology — there’s mention of illiterate Indians and Mexicans — to make a larger point that witnesses relied upon imprecise memories of events occurring more than fifty or sixty years earlier. Texas relied upon "the Salazar-Diaz Survey of 1852, the Texas surveys of 1849 and 1860, the maps of the surveys made in 1852-1855 for the Joint Boundary commissions, and the Clark map of 1859."

The Court dismissed New Mexico’s claim. The Rio Grande separates a corner of Texas from the rest of the state to this day. There are also small slices of New Mexico placed similarly on the opposing side of the river.

View Larger Map

The resolution of the dispute, tracing a riverbed that no longer existed, created a modern situation overflowing with all sorts of wonderful practical exclaves. I think my favorite example is the vineyard in Canutillo, Texas "nestled between the majestic Franklin Mountains and the high plains where the Rio Grande cuts a lush green valley through the desert creating the Mesilla Valley Appellation.". Zin Valle Vineyards on Canutillo-La Union Road can be accessed only via New Mexico either from the north or the south. The same situation exists just to the east on Westside Road and several smaller lanes that emanate from it. The southernmost of the smaller lanes, Green Cove Drive, can be accessed from the outside world starting in New Mexico, driving into Texas, clipping New Mexico again, and ending in Texas (map). Lucky residents.

Why was it the Country Club Dispute, though?

View Larger Map

The disputed lands were referred to generally as the Country Club Area because that’s where the El Paso Country Club established itself in 1906 (its current location dates to 1922). That, in turn, increased the desirability of the land which was sold in lots. Paradoxically the Country Club’s history page does not mention its prominent role in sparking an interstate dispute and a Supreme Court case.

On March 7, 2013 · 3 Comments

3 Responses to “The Country Club Dispute”

  1. Fritz Keppler says:

    Back in the early 70’s, when I was stationed at Ft Bliss/El Paso, one of the attractions that the local tourist bureau emphasized was the racetrack at Sunland Park. Horse racing was illegal in Texas, but not New Mexico, and the racetrack (now with casino) was advertised as if it were right within the limits of the city itself, not with any recognition that it lay in a different state. For a while I didn’t realize this fact until I got a car and went driving around, and only later noted that the state line on the road to the racetrack then was all but unmarked.

  2. Gary says:

    There is another golf course with an odd border configuration in Maine called the Arrostoock Valley Country Club. The golf course is on the border of Maine and New Brunswick, which is also the U.S./Canada border. The course itself is in Canada, but the clubhouse and parking lot is in the United States. The only way in to the golf club is technically in Maine, so golfers from Canada who played there crossed the border on this small local road right at the course entrance instead of a real border crossing.

    This worked fine for however many years, but nowadays with terrorism fears running rampant all access to the golf course from Canada has been closed since 2008. People now have to drive about 20 miles out of the way to the nearest manned border crossing to go to the course from Canada. Never mind that you would have to cross the border anyway to go from the parking lot to the golf course itself. Next thing you know there will be a manned border crossing on the course since you technically have to cross from the parking lot in the U.S. into Canada to play on the actual course itself. Sometimes border crossing things get a bit carried away, and people have to think realistically.

    Also in New England is one of my favorites, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which is on the border between Derby Line, Vermont (the United States) and Stanstead, Quebec (Canada). It was intentionally built on the border over 100 yeras ago with part of the building in Canada and part in the United States. A black line runs across the main reading room of the library to show where the border is. It had two addresses, one in Vermont and one in Quebec but it is the same building.

    The website is in either English or French, this is the English one:

  3. William B. says:

    I had seen this on Wikipedia but your site is great..

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